Updated: May 12
by Ulises Pabon
When you study, at a very high level of abstraction, the thousands of patents that have been awarded, you can identify universal solutions that have been repeatedly applied, albeit in different contexts and different domains. In other words, many patents, while they address different problems, solve these problems by using the same principle.
For example, at first sight, you would think that the patent for the common mousetrap that was issued in 1879, and the patent for the lightning rod that was issued in 1918, and the patent for desiccant that was issued years later have nothing in common. What does eliminating rats have to do with protecting delicate equipment from moisture?
Well, it turns out that these three patents solve different problems using the same abstract principle: insert something in the system – e.g., a mousetrap with cheese, a grounded metal rod, a porous bag with special chemicals – that attracts the harmful agent – e.g., a mouse, lighting, humidity – away from what you are trying to protect – e.g., your home, a building, an electronic device during shipment.
Don’t discount this as a simple exercise in copy and paste. It is a celebration of a unique human capability: our ability to think abstractly. Thinking abstractly allows us to apply what we have learned in one specific instance to a broader set of problems.
For about 25 years, we have been using a methodology based on this abstract thinking process to help scientists, engineers, and technicians solve complex scientific and technical problems.
We didn’t invent the method. I learned about it in the late ’90s. It turns out that Boeing was one of the early adaptors of this methodology in the U.S. I flew to Seattle and studied the method under the guidance of Zinovy Royzen, one of the early developers and practitioners in this field.
I’m referring to TRIZ. TRIZ is an acronym in Russian that means Theory for the Resolution of Inventive Problems. It became the fountainhead for other similar methodologies. SIT, for example, which stands for Systematic Inventive Thinking, was developed in the 1990s in Israel and is based on TRIZ theory and principles.
Since my initial encounter with TRIZ, two things have happened. The TRIZ toolset has grown and evolved. Today, TRIZ encompasses an advanced set of tools you can use to characterize and model a problem, think about the problem in abstract terms, and generate concrete solutions to solve it.
The other thing that changed is that we have used the method in over 150 assignments. We helped researchers in Colombia solve a scientific challenge related to the digestive process in cows. We helped the design engineers of a lens manufacturer in the northeast US find and eliminate the root cause of a microscopic defect created in the lens coating process. We helped the engineers of a pharmaceutical company in Latin America solve a problem related to tablets chipping and breaking in their manufacturing process. In a nutshell, we learned to use the method and we learned to teach it.
Problems where you want to protect something from a harmful agent are just a subset of the different kinds of problems a scientist or an engineer will face. Sometimes you want to create a new function from scratch. Sometimes you want to measure something – a field, an attribute, a characteristic or quality of a substance, or even the presence of something, and you don’t know how. Sometimes you want to find the hidden root cause of a problem. Other times you want to design a solution that requires conflicting requirements. And sometimes you want to invent the next generation of something. You want to take an existing solution “to the next level”. TRIZ can help in all of these instances.
If you are curious about how TRIZ can help you, send us a note and we’ll gladly reply. As for what TRIZ has to say about COVID-19, please read on.
At this stage of the pandemic, the world has, pretty much, tried everything to curb contagion, flatten the curve, and squelch the virus. And there is a known solution to viruses: create a vaccine.
Hence, my objective here is primarily educational. Using TRIZ to attack COVID-19, a harmful agent, will illustrate a slice of this powerful methodology and hopefully stimulate your interest in learning and using this tool.
Modeling a Problem and Exploring Universal Solutions
Before we jump into the universal solutions, it’s important to explain a bit of TRIZ terminology and nomenclature. I will be using the T-O-P nomenclature I learned from Zinovy many years ago. When modeling phenomena, it’s my go-to methodology and it has served me well. T-O-P stands for Tool-Object-Product.
Here are the definitions:
A) COVID-19 is the harmful agent we want to eliminate. In TRIZ nomenclature, COVID-19 is the Harmful Function. Although it’s not included in the T-O-P descriptor, we will denote this harmful function as F.
B) O stands for Object. In this exercise, a COVID-19-negative human is the object. He or she is the potential recipient of the Harmful Function (the coronavirus).
C) P stance for Product. It’s what O turns into when exposed to the Harmful Function. In TRIZ, when the function is harmful, the Product is referred to as a Harmful Product. Once exposed to COVID-19, a COVID-19-negative human turns into a COVID-19-positive human. Hence, our P is a COVID-19-positive human.
D) T stands for Tool. It’s either the source or the means the Harmful Function (the virus) uses to gain access to the Object (a COVID-19 negative human).
The following equation illustrates the relationship between these elements.
Once we’ve modeled the phenomenon, we can apply the TRIZ rules for eliminating a harmful function. These rules are in the form of principles that we will need to contextualize to the specifics of our problem. Think of each rule as a solution category. Let’s see what we can come up with.
1. Surround O with something that protects it from F
The first general solution is to surround the human with something that isolates or protects the human from the virus. Using Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is a direct application of this solution category. Gloves, special suits, and masks separate us from the virus. By surrounding ourselves with something, we avoid the virus from attacking us and turning us into a COVID-19-positive human.
2. Insert an opposing Force that counterattacks F
This solution proposes inserting a counterforce that kills or neutralizes the virus. At a macro level, cleaning and sanitizing a surface would be an example of this principle. We are inserting a force or field (cleaning and chemicals) that will kill the virus. Requiring employees and customers to use hand sanitizers when they enter a store or office is another example of this principle.
To illustrate this principle in another domain, consider noise-canceling headphones. They work by constantly "listening" to the frequency pattern of the ambient noise surrounding you and generating, in real-time, a sound with the exact opposite frequency fingerprint. One sound cancels the other, achieving silence.
At a microscopic clinical level, some COVID-19 experimental treatments attempt to weaken the virus using this same principle.
3. Insert something into the system that attracts F and steers it away from O
This is the principle I referred to at the beginning of this article. The idea is to insert something that will attract the coronavirus so that it migrates to that and does not attack us. I can’t think of an example at the macro level. Yet, some medical treatments use this principle to attack the coronavirus once it enters the body. If we can attract the virus and dictate its journey once inside the body, we might be able to deter it from the lungs where it appears that most of the serious damage is done.
4. Change the Tool T so that F is not generated or is unable to reach O
This rule entails changing the means by which the virus is generated or makes it to the human. In a work setting, changing workflows, redesigning the way the company operates, or adopting a new modus operandi are examples of this principle in action.
There’s talk about life in a touch-less economy. During the last few weeks, we’ve been helping our clients redefine the way they work and pivot their business models into operational designs that thrive in a touch-less world.
5. Make O immune to F
Here’s our vaccine. Making the Object immune to the Harmful Function makes the harmful function harmless and eliminates the notion of a Harmful Product.
6. Alter the frequency, duration, or area of impact of F on O.
This solution class suggests that you can eliminate the effects of a Harmful Function by reducing the frequency, the duration, or the area of impact of the Harmful Function on the Object.
That’s exactly what social distancing does. At work, reducing the frequency of a task that requires human contact or limiting the number of customers that can enter a showroom or that can wait in a vestibule are examples of this principle put to use.
7. Eliminate the need for O
If you don’t have an Object, there’s nothing to change into a Harmful Product. In our specific problem, this solution class would entail removing the human from the equation.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s, railroad workers were responsible for coupling one railroad car to another. Thousands of workers were killed or injured because of coupling accidents. Between 1888 and 1894, 16,000 workers were killed and 170,000 were crippled.
By 1898, automatic couplers were installed on all common carrier railroad cars. Fatalities dropped sharply.
Examples abound were automation removes humans from dangerous or accident-prone tasks, saving lives in the process.
Applied to COVID-19, this solution category suggests removing humans from tasks that are conducive to contagion. Delivery of products using drones is an example of this principle in action.
The equations below can help you keep these seven rules in mind and apply them to problems where you want to eliminate a harmful function.
TRIZ is a powerful methodology. I’ve used COVID-19 to share a slice of it. I hope this article sparks possibilities you haven’t considered in dealing with the coronavirus. And I particularly hope it triggers interest in using TRIZ for other problems.
We’ve helped scientists, engineers, and technical professionals solve all kinds of problems and overcome all kinds of design and invention challenges using TRIZ. They bring the subject matter expertise of their particular problem and field of study. We bring our proficiency and experience using TRIZ and our ability to guide them through the inventive design or problem-solving process.
Thanks for reading! Share your thoughts below. And if you are interested in incorporating TRIZ to your problem solving and innovating toolset, reach out to us. We’d love to help.
Keep safe and healthy!